The Pfizer Coronavirus Vaccine Is Near Approval, but U.S. May Have to Wait to Buy More

With Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine poised for Food and Drug Administration authorization for emergency use, there's speculation about when the United States will buy another batch of doses — and whether the Trump administration already missed its chance.

Although a Pfizer board member says the government declined to buy more doses beyond the initial 100 million agreed upon in July, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told PBS Newshour that this is inaccurate. The company never made a formal offer saying how many doses it would deliver and when — two things that are needed to sign an additional deal.

"They refused to commit to any other production or delivery by a time certain," he said, explaining that the initial doses will be delivered by March, and there is an option for the government to buy another 500 million after that. "I'm certainly not going to sign a deal with Pfizer, giving them $10 billion to buy vaccine that they could deliver to us five, 10 years hence. That doesn't make any sense."

Azar said the government started new negotiations with Pfizer in early October, but "they still resisted giving us any date by which they would do it." He said they're making progress in their negotiations, but the government is willing to use "every power of the Defense Production Act" to get the additional necessary Pfizer vaccine doses.

Pfizer board member and former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Tuesday that the federal government declined "multiple times" to purchase more doses of Pfizer's vaccine over the summer, and it may have missed out on getting more in the second quarter of 2021.

"Pfizer did offer an additional allotment coming out of that plan — basically the second quarter allotment — multiple times," Gottlieb told CNBC.

Gottlieb noted that the government has agreements to buy hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines from six manufacturers as part of Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration's more than $10 billion push to make a coronavirus vaccine available in record time. He suspects the government is betting more than one vaccine would ultimately get the FDA's authorization.

Read the full story.

Sydney Lupkin, NPR

Restaurant Group Applauds California Reopening, Considers 'Next Steps' for Lawsuit

Restaurant owners applauded the announcement that California is discontinuing its shelter-in-place order, allowing outdoor dining to resume, among other restrictions that will now be lifted. Dining has been shut down in the state since the first week of December.

In a statement, the Wine Country Coalition for Safe Reopening lauded the move. The organization sued the state in December over the outdoor dining ban, calling it “arbitrary, irrational and unfair.”

“Our first order of business is now getting our employees back to work so that we can resume serving our patrons safely,” the group said. “We will, however, be consulting with our attorneys on the next steps for our lawsuit to ensure our members are protected in the future.”

Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, owns two restaurants in San Francisco. She said that while she’s excited about the prospect of outdoor dining returning, it won’t be enough to pull restaurants completely out of the red.

“There are no reserves, there's no emotional reserves, there's no financial reserves,” Thomas said. “So just saying, 'Hey, you can reopen' doesn't mean that that's a slam dunk.”

Shutting down and starting up costs money, she said, and many restaurants are wary of coronavirus variants gaining ground, forcing them to close again.

“We really need to have transparency from the state on how these shutdowns and reopenings are going to happen going forward,” she said. “And nobody has any answers.”

She says Congress should pass a federal stimulus bill aimed specifically at the restaurant industry.

Erin Baldassari

Santa Clara Valley Bus Drivers' Union Wants Return to Rear-Door Boarding

The union for bus and light-rail operators at the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority says it wants the district to go back to rear-door boarding amid a spike in COVID-19 cases among members.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265 says a total of 162 VTA employees have tested positive for the coronavirus, including 56 in December and about 60 so far this month. John Courtney, president of Local 265, said more than 90% of cases throughout the agency have occurred among his union's members.

Courtney said Local 265 met with VTA officials last week to request that the district reinstate rear-door boarding, a measure that limits contact between passengers and operators. But so far, he said, VTA management hasn't acted on the request.

"And there is really only one reason," Courtney said. "It's for money. It's not for anything else."

VTA and virtually every other transit agency in the region adopted rear-door boarding as a safety measure at the outset of the pandemic last spring. But boarding passengers at the rear door of buses generally means no fares are collected. In the case of VTA, rear-door boarding cost the agency upwards of $1 million a month in lost passenger revenue. VTA stopped the practice in August.

In a statement Friday, VTA acknowledged an "uptick" in COVID-19 cases among agency workers but said those who tested positive make up "a small percentage" of the agency's 2,000 or so employees. The increase in infections "is sadly consistent with the community trend associated with recent holiday gatherings," the statement added.

The agency said it's working on a formal response to the union's rear-door boarding proposal.

Dan Brekke

San Jose Hospital Has Vaccine Doses Withheld After Breaking Eligibility Rules

Santa Clara County is withholding doses of COVID-19 vaccine from a San Jose hospital after teachers from a local school district were invited to sign up for vaccinations before they were eligible.

First reported by the San Jose Spotlight, Good Samaritan Hospital offered vaccine appointments to staff of Los Gatos Union School District. An email from school district Superintendent Paul Johnson to staff members suggested the hospital was offering the appointments due to fundraising work the district had done for the hospital.

That offer goes against eligibility requirements, as Santa Clara County is currently vaccinating only health care workers, vulnerable seniors and those 75 and older.

A spokesperson for the hospital said about 65 teachers from the school district were given first doses; they will be allowed to receive the required second dose, the county said.

In a statement, hospital CEO Joe DeSchryver apologized and said the offer was made in order to avoid wasting unused doses that had thawed.

Johnson, the district superintendent, said in a statement that he understood the concern about the incident but that "any characterization I may have made about Good Samaritan returning a good deed was my own personal interpretation."

Good Samaritan Hospital must submit a plan to the county before it can begin receiving first doses of vaccine again.

Polly Stryker and Jon Brooks

California Plans to Extend Eviction Protections Through June

California plans to extend eviction protections through the end of June while using federal money to pay off up to 80% of most tenants' unpaid rent, according to an agreement announced Monday between Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state's top two legislative leaders.

The proposal, which must be approved by the state Legislature, would extend a state law scheduled to expire next Monday that prevents landlords from evicting tenants who could not pay their rent between March and August because of the coronavirus pandemic.

To be eligible for that protection, tenants must sign a “declaration of hardship” that they have been impacted by the pandemic and must pay at least 25% of their rent due between Sept. 1 and Jan. 31.

This new proposal would extend those protections until June 30. But it would also use $2.6 billion Congress recently approved for California to pay off some of that unpaid rent.

The state would pay landlords up to 80% of their unpaid rent — but only if landlords agree to forgive the remaining 20% and pledge not to evict tenants.

If landlords refuse that deal, the state would pay them 25% of their tenants' unpaid rent. That would ensure those tenants qualify for the state's eviction protections and could not be kicked out of their homes until after June 30.

Read the full story.

Adam Beam, Associated Press

Anti-Vaccine Groups Exploit Coincidental Illness to Undermine COVID-19 Vaccinations

Anti-vaccine groups are exploiting the suffering and death of people who happen to fall ill after receiving a COVID-19 shot, threatening to undermine the largest vaccination campaign in U.S. history.

In some cases, anti-vaccine activists are fabricating stories of deaths that never occurred.

“This is exactly what anti-vaccine groups do,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious diseases specialist and author of “Preventing the Next Pandemic: Vaccine Diplomacy in a Time of Anti-Science.”

Anti-vaccine groups have falsely claimed for decades that childhood vaccines cause autism, weaving fantastic conspiracy theories involving government, big business and the media.

Now, the same groups are blaming patients’ coincidental medical problems on COVID shots, even when it’s clear that age or underlying health conditions are to blame, Hotez said.

“They will sensationalize anything that happens after someone gets a vaccine and attribute it to the vaccine,” Hotez said.

Read the full story from California Healthline.

Liz Szabo, California Healthline

California Lifts Stay-at-Home Orders for All Regions

California lifted regional stay-at-home orders across the state Monday in response to improving coronavirus conditions, returning the state to a system of county-by-county restrictions, state health officials announced.

The order had been in place in the San Francisco Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California regions, covering the majority of the state's counties. The change will allow businesses such as restaurants to resume outdoor operations in many areas, though local officials could choose to continue stricter rules. The state is also lifting a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.

"Together, we changed our activities knowing our short-term sacrifices would lead to longer-term gains. COVID-19 is still here and still deadly, so our work is not over, but it's important to recognize our collective actions saved lives and we are turning a critical corner," said Dr. Tomás J. Aragón, director of the California Department of Public Health, in a statement.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to address the public later Monday.

After the order was lifted Monday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed tweeted the following:

Marin said in a press release that it along with the rest of the counties in the region are going into the purple tier, also known as Tier 1, indicating "widespread" coronavirus transmission. The redesignation means hair salons, nail salons, barbershops and tattoo parlors, among other personal services, can reopen. Retail stores, including those in malls, as well as libraries can jump to allowing 25% capacity.

Outdoor dining and religious services can resume. Gyms can also reopen, but only outdoors.

The state's decision comes with improving trends in the rate of infections, hospitalizations and intensive care unit capacity as well as vaccinations.

Newsom imposed the stay-at-home order in December as coronavirus cases worsened. Under the system, a multi-county region had to shut down most businesses and order people to stay home if ICU capacity dropped below 15%.

An 11-county Northern California region was never under the order. The Greater Sacramento region exited the order last week. The state makes the decisions based on four-week projections showing ICU capacity improving, but officials have not disclosed the data behind the forecasts.

During the weekend, San Francisco Bay Area ICU capacity surged to 23% while the San Joaquin Valley increased to 1.3%, its first time above zero in more than a month. The huge Southern California region, the most populous, remains at zero ICU capacity.

Early last year, the state developed a system of color-coded tiers that dictated the level of restrictions on businesses and individuals based on virus conditions in each of California's 58 counties. Most counties will now go back to the most restrictive purple tier, which allows for outdoor dining, hair and nail salons to be open, and outdoor church services. Bars that only serve beverages cannot be open.

The county-by-county tier system uses various metrics to determine the risk of community transmission and apply a color code — purple, red, orange or yellow — which correspond to widespread, substantial, moderate and minimal, respectively.

As of the weekend, California has had more than 3.1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and 36,790 deaths, according to the state's public health website.

Kathleen Ronayne and John Antczak, Associated Press, and Jon Brooks, KQED

Counties Aim to Help Low-Income Residents Sign Up for Vaccine Appointments

As California works to ramp up access to the COVID-19 vaccine, counties are making an effort to help eligible residents who are low-income or uninsured schedule their vaccine appointments.

In Santa Clara County, Public Health Deputy Director Rocio Luna says that even though all the information to make an appointment is online, she understand that not everyone has internet access. She said the county piloted a sign-up fair at the Cupertino Senior Center last week.

"That’s part of the strategy, to get into the community and overcome technology, language or housing barriers," she said. "Community health clinics are working alongside counties to do that outreach."

Sabra Matovsky is CEO of the San Francisco Community Clinic Consortium, which partners with the county’s health network, serving over 100,000 patients a year, including about 18,000 who are living in cars, couch surfing or are otherwise unhoused.

Currently, the consortium is still vaccinating staff, but Matovsky hopes they can get to patients soon.

The people who come to her clinics do the work many of us depend on, and they need to get vaccinated, she said.

"There are a lot of people who do a lot of the basic things that need to happen every day to make sure that our society works," she said, "the food service, transportation, child care."

Polly Stryker